- - Monday, April 12, 2021

Republican lawmakers in state legislatures nationwide are proposing more than 250 bills that critics say are designed to curb Black voters’ access to the ballot and increase the possibility of partisan interference in vote counting. 

In Georgia, a sweeping new law immediately became ground zero for the fight over voting rights heading into the 2022 midterm elections, provoking a corporate backlash and Major League Baseball’s decision to yank the All-Star Game from Atlanta. 

Some historians have labeled the wave of voting proposals “Jim Crow 2.0,” a potential sequel to the system of White supremacy that grew from the ashes of Reconstruction.

Such talk has provoked its own backlash. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, dismissed the criticism, saying civil rights advocates and corporate leaders are ignoring the facts.

Invoking Jim Crow is meant to touch a nerve because it conjures images from one of the most racist chapters in the American past: segregated schools, Whites-only water fountains and lunch counters, wholesale disenfranchisement, and lynchings. But is it accurate?

“Probably historians wouldn’t use that particular term. Jim Crow was a total system. It imposed many things,” said historian Eric Foner in the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast. Mr. Foner is professor emeritus at Columbia University and a renowned expert on the social and political struggles of the post-Civil War era.

“Disenfranchising Black voters is certainly a key part of it, but I think it is saying too much to say that this is Jim Crow 2.0,” he said. “It’s disenfranchisement 2.0 and that itself is reprehensible.”

When it comes to Georgia’s election overhaul, Mr. Foner concedes that it is difficult to know whether it will suppress turnout. 

“It’s a complicated bill. It makes voting harder in some places and easier in other places,” said Mr. Foner, who is more concerned about the increased potential for political partisans to subvert an election under new authority granted to Georgia’s state legislature.

The legislature may now appoint the head of the state election board, who in turn could appoint someone to take over a county election board, which has power over vote counting. 

So, for instance, if the new law had been in effect in January when then-President Trump telephoned Georgia officials in January seeking to overturn the 2020 election by “finding” 11,000 votes — only to be rebuffed by Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger — the state elections board, controlled by appointees of the Republican-led legislature, would have been allowed to appoint someone to commandeer a county election board. 

Such a move would not automatically flip the results of an election, but by merely adding another opening for partisan interference, the state legislature is making its intentions clear, Mr. Foner said.

“There has always been a strand of thought in America that too many people are voting. We pride ourselves on democracy and yet the word democracy does not appear in the Constitution. The Founders were suspicious of democracy. That’s why they created an Electoral College,” Mr. Foner said.

“And over the course of our history there have been innumerable efforts to restrict the right to vote for some people.”

For more of Mr. Foner’s insights into the Georgia election law as well as the origins of Jim Crow, listen to his episode of History As It Happens.

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